The Fall 2017 issue of the Sewanee Review, due out in October, is the magazine’s five-hundredth, and marks the close of its 125th volume. The Review has had the privilege of publishing countless great writers since it was founded by William Peterfield Trent in 1892, but, as former editor George Core remarked, “Longevity alone does not guarantee a virtue.” With that in mind, in 2017 the Review underwent significant changes.
McDermott: In my case, a good part of imagination is memory—the familiarity of a place, but also of the people who inhabit the place (I don’t think a fiction writer can separate the two)—but it is memory filtered, shaped, and transformed by what the heart imagines. For me, character is often first, and then, inseparably, the place the character inhabits—but these choices often seem incidental, material readily at hand. I’m more interested in getting to, getting at, what the heart imagines as the story unfolds. A roundabout way of saying: you begin with what you know to discover all you don’t know.
I want a story to keep me company while you stare at your phone in bed.
Any story. That a man named Solon planned the whole city of Athens
while in love with his mother’s friend’s son. He broke his hand once
trying to catch a turtle which had slipped from the roof of a temple
is what I want to be told while you play scrabble against any number
of people you haven’t seen in years. Exist for forty points
links to stop for twenty-five which you drop into tranq for its q worth
at least half the house.
My grandfather was always afraid
of the machines in his shop – plunge-
router, lathe, temperamental planer
he bartered for back when he was first
getting sober. Said his buddy
was doing piecework one time
at the table saw, looked up,
looked down and his right thumb
was on the floor.
She drops the tooth
in the pan, packs my cheek
to sop the blood. I’m
telling her about the mole
on my hand I’m sure
In 1955, after graduating from Miami Beach High School, I went off to the University of Florida, in Gainesville—a pretty town located between Tallahassee to the west and Jacksonville to the east. Nearly every day of my four years there, I wrote letters home to my mother, who in turn typed letters to me from our family’s apartment in Miami Beach. In 1962, this correspondence, carefully saved by my mother, crossed the country in an ancient truck my father bought to transport the contents of his antique store from Florida to California. On the nights that my mother and sister slept in a motel, my father kept watch on a blanket under the truck to protect his cargo. Now, in the late years of my life, I sit with the letters spread about me, discovering truths I had forgotten.
My first roommate, a blonde Betty Lu Butterfield, was desperate to be chosen by a sorority, and she made fun of me as I typed on my typewriter. She said things like: “Writing another poem, Merrill? Writing the great American novel, Merrill?” Betty Lu had six crinolines, all crammed into her side of the closet. Her bras were pink lace and padded, and her girdle was made of some kind of brown rubber. She played her Elvis records round the clock. When her friends were in the room, all of them smoking, they’d chatter till midnight, even when I begged them to leave. She was irritated that I already had a boyfriend and would ask, “Where do you and Joe go? Into the woods? Is that where you get all those mosquito bites? And what do you do in the woods with him?”
I did want to write a novel someday. The summer after high school I had worked posting mortgage payments in the offices of Marvin Lachmann Associates on Lincoln Road. Joe had a job in North Miami Beach posting stock market quotations on a blackboard in an investment office. My bus went south on Collins Avenue, Joe’s bus north, and we timed our respective departures, each watching for the approaching bus and waving passionately as we sped past each other. His beautifully-formed forearm waving at me filled me with joy that had to last me for a long day of entering mortgage payments on a big green NCR machine. Other women in the office worked full-time for Mr. Lachmann, who always had a cigar in his mouth as he checked on our work. I dreaded the thought of growing up to be one of those secretaries, going into an office like his, taking dictation from a man like him, who always made a point of complimenting my dress or my hair in a way that disgusted me. “Aren’t you a pretty little thing today!” he would say.
On my lunch hour I read, every day, a Shakespeare play. I knew I was college bound. Joe was also not going to be writing stock quotes on a blackboard all his life. I had met him the day before my sixteenth birthday at the meeting of a Young Judea club at Miami Beach High School. He was so handsome, already muscled and manly. He was, I knew as soon as we spoke, a deep soul. My heart leapt at the sight of him.
Both sets of our parents had moved to Miami Beach from Brooklyn, our fathers in search of some business venture that never worked out. Our mothers were both legal secretaries. Joe and I recognized each other as kindred spirits. Even at sixteen and seventeen we knew our destinies. Love. And college.
During the first meeting with my advisor at the University of Florida, she said, “With your interests, you will want to study with the great writing teacher here, Andrew Lytle. You may not take his class for credit freshman year, but he might let you sit in.”
Walking home from work not too long ago, I saw a snakeskin curled around the base of a tree. More bored than honestly curious, I picked up a stick and poked at the skin, which disintegrated, its broken bits floating up like ash from a campfire. Man, they say, is no friend to nature.
I often imagine a borderless world,
oceans decanted into a pebble,
the sunset unbending in the moonlight,
no talk of walls to amend my knowledge
of what a country could be, but isn’t,
no wry snarl of the powerful whiplashed
through the centuries, brined into the lungs,
just line after line of wave lapping prow,
My father was a minister when I was a child, but the church was constantly having to relocate him. We moved for the last time when I was nine. We were sent from Baltimore to a large island in coastal South Carolina. My father considered this a personal affront, because he hated the South, but I preferred the South because it had produced my mother. I also thought palmetto trees were exotic.
My mother explained that the people at our old church had not been smart enough to understand my father’s complex theology. My brother and I were lying on her bed in our new home while my father was at work.
“Really?” my brother said. “No call from God this time?”
At sixteen, Mason was suffering from a loss of faith that made him sarcastic. Before, he’d been my primary source of religious instruction, as our father rarely spoke of God outside of church and our mother rarely spoke at all. Mason read the Bible to me when I was in second grade, and I liked lying on his floor, throwing his balled-up socks at the ceiling fan, thinking about life inside of a whale: was it scary and dark, pressed in among cold organs, each at work and unaware of you? Or was there a space there, cozy and warm, where a traveler might find refuge? Mason had preferred the darker mysteries, the book of Job and the trial of Abraham and Isaac. But now he was listening to the Grateful Dead and spending hours doing homework, and I was suffering from a lack of stories.
Our mother frowned at Mason’s tone. She pulled a dress from her closet. She added that, for now, she would be staying elsewhere during the week. She would join us for church on Sundays.
Within weeks of our move, I could see my father beginning to unravel. He had a barking laugh that frightened me. I watched him stand in the church doorway on Sundays, shaking men’s hands and slipping his arm around their wives, his green eyes filled with peculiar light. He was not an angry man, more of an empty one, and when he smiled we knew something terrible was going to happen.
I was in love with our new home, which sat at the edge of a wide, lonely marsh. I imagined secrets curled in the snails clinging to the cordgrass, and codes being passed by the oysters clicking under the water when the tide was high. Cheerful neighborhood dogs emerged from the woods at dusk and crossed our property as part of their nightly patrol. They walked along the marsh, smelling the gloamy sadness and the evening, passing through our yard like noble shadows of some happier life.
My father could not abide these dogs. He loaded his shotgun and leaned it against the wall by the back door. He said shooting stray dogs was a good way to teach them to stay out of our yard. I tried to explain that once a dog was dead it could learn nothing, but this conversation did not go well for me. Later, over the phone, my mother said not to provoke him. I told her the dogs weren’t even strays; they had owners. I thought of them as guests.
That weekend, Mason took me with him to see Joe Allen, the older brother of Reed and Charles, twin boys in my class at school. The Allens belonged to our church, and the plan was for Mason and Joe to go fishing while I spent the day with the twins. But in the few weeks I’d been at my new school, the twins and I had never spoken. I didn’t know how to play with identical strangers, especially boys. I was fairly certain they wouldn’t want me around.
In the car on the way over, I tried to convince Mason not to leave me behind. He tried to distract me with facts about the Allens. He said there were four children, one of whom was mentally disabled. He said everyone on their farm used the same frying pan over and over without washing it. He said the twins’ father was a veterinarian.
“Reed and Charles don’t like me,” I said.
“Forget it,” he said. “Don’t even start.”
My brother was graduating from high school two years early so he could escape our house and go to college. He had said not to worry, that I’d escape one day too, but I was worried. He’d also said that one day I’d understand why he was leaving, and this was true, but it hadn’t happened yet. He flipped on his blinker and we turned down a long farm road that separated a sprawling marsh from a stubbly field. In the field, four cows swung their tails and chewed grass. One of them regarded us.
We stopped at a closed gate. A sign nailed to a live oak read, “Allen, Private Pr—, Keep O—,” the rest of the letters hidden by mops of Spanish moss. Mason said, “Open the gate.”
I got out of the car, daring myself to refuse. I could stand there in protest, or, even better, bolt off into the woods. Instead, I pulled the wire loop off the fence post and dragged open the heavy gate. Mason drove across the cattle guard while I stood on the lower fence rail, watching. Then I pulled the gate closed, put the loop back over the post, and got back in the car. I held my door open with my foot. I was stalling.
My brother put the car in drive. “Close that door before I harm you,” he said.
I closed the door and put on my seat belt. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. We’d been moving all my life, and I was used to being dropped in among strangers. But this year I was full of fear that I could not articulate. I felt the force of my shyness tightening over me like a drum. I leaned over and touched Mason’s collar.
“You’re not listening,” I said. “I want to come fishing with you.”
Mason didn’t answer.
“One day you’ll have to listen to me,” I said.
This made him laugh. I had developed a bad habit of making threats about the future, when I would be older and bigger and might take over our house. I understood that my imagination was not following life’s rules, but it persisted, embarrassingly. I blushed and looked out the window. The car hopped and rolled along the rutted road. A few seconds later, I saw a jaunty white farmhouse.
Before he turned off the car, Mason looked at me. “You used to be a sweet kid,” he said.
He shrugged. “Like an hour ago.”
This made me smile.
He nodded. “Don’t get creepy and shy now,” he said. He checked his bangs in the rearview mirror. “And don’t turn away from strangers. You’re going to need all the help you can get in this life.”
“Why?” I said. “What’s wrong with me?”
My brother opened his door and the yawning day slipped in all around him. So much light in South Carolina. I watched him get out, and then I followed him.
A minute later we were in the Allens’ yard, and Mason was shyly shaking Dr. Allen’s hand. Dr. Allen held a football under his arm. Reed and Charles stood a few feet behind their father, tall boys with light blond hair and narrow eyes. Charles was in front, his upper body tilted back, as if pulled by a magnet located inside his brother. Reed stood straight with his arms hanging by his sides. I didn’t see Joe anywhere.
Dr. Allen asked Mason about college. Even though Mason lived and breathed Clemson, where he was applying for early admission, he looked down and shrugged. We were both uncomfortable around parents, especially fathers. I wanted to rescue, Mason so he’d see I was indispensable. Looking up at the plateaus of flat clouds, I found the edge of the cutaway sun, and I watched it until I sneezed. I covered my mouth with both hands and then extended them fully, as if the sneeze had blown my hands off my face. When I opened my eyes, Mason was smiling.
“What was that?” he said. “A tornado?”
“Yup,” I said.
Reed and Charles were looking at each other. I knew what they were thinking: Why do we have to spend the day with this girl? Why not Miranda Porter, who already knows the cheers from the varsity cheering squad, the only girl in our grade to need a bra? I imagined them telling everyone about me at school. Charles would say, “Her family’s having trouble. We think her mother might have run away.”
Joe came out of the shed behind the house with fishing rods in his hands. He was tall and skinny with reddish hair. He and Mason grinned at each other, and I saw Mason’s body relax. Joe nodded at me. “What’s up, shorty?” he said. I gave my best nonchalant shrug. Then they got into Mason’s car.
“Be careful!” said Charles.
Reed yelled, “Watch out for alligators!”
My brother stuck his head out the window, looking for me. “Don’t get in trouble,” he said.
Dr. Allen said, “Watch the road, son! That’s not a bicycle.”
He was spinning the football in his hand, and it seemed natural for the rest of us to fan out and play catch. But I was terrible. Instead of growing curvy like the pictures in health class, I had just gotten longer, which made me clumsy. More than once, the ball flew through my hands and hit me in the sternum, or I’d look away at the last second and miss the catch. I was distracted by Mason’s station wagon, which grew smaller and smaller until it vanished in a trail of dust. No matter what I was doing back then, part of me was always occupied, trying to figure out how I would survive without him once he escaped to Clemson, trying to figure out how to make him stay with me a little longer. He did not pretend he would be coming home for holidays.
Dr. Allen whistled admiringly when Charles threw a spiral. “Heads up,” he said before he threw me the ball. “That’s the ticket,” he said, when I lined up my fingers on the threads. When the ball fell backwards off my hand, he said, “Not important. Give it a year. Your hands will grow.”
After a few minutes, he looked down at his phone. “Uh-oh,” he said. “Time to rescue some kittens. Think you guys can survive without me?” He winked at me. “It’s not a good day if you don’t get to rescue a kitten, right?”
I nodded, amazed, and shook my head, confused. A father who would rush off to rescue kittens was a mystery to me. Dr. Allen was taller than my father. He was quiet, but that was fine. When men were more reserved, I felt less afraid of them. And once I stopped fearing them, I usually fell in love. I was young and smitten with everyone who was nice to me, and it wasn’t bad feeling this way.
Dr. Allen climbed into his white Ford and drove away. The dust had barely settled on the road after my brother’s car. Now it rose again into a kicking white cloud.
The twins and I looked at each other. It became clear, somehow, that I belonged with Reed, and Charles ran to the house. This was decided without me. I assumed that, as twins, they had their own language.
“What do you want to do?” Reed said. He had pale freckles and gray eyes. Without his brother, he seemed oddly vulnerable.
“Are there really alligators?” I said. I was terrified of these animals. They appeared in South Carolina in people’s yards and on golf courses. They ate people’s dogs. I’d heard they attacked babies, children, even stupid adults. They showed up in my nightmares, crossing my floor in shadowy swarms. Everyone said to run in a zigzag pattern if one chased you. They could move faster than humans, but their eyes were too far apart to keep track of their prey.
Reed nodded. “We have a bunch,” he said. “I’ll show you.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“We’ll be careful.”
“I already believe you.”
Reed started walking, so I followed him. We headed down the dirt drive toward the marsh, each walking in our own rut. It was a clear blue day. Reed pointed out a rusty transmission Joe had dropped driving his jeep too fast the summer before. He told me seven or eight alligators lived in a brackish pond near the woods, but the one we were looking for was a twelve-foot male who’d eaten several of the Allens’ dogs. “He’s a bad one,” Reed said.
I didn’t understand why they let such an animal live, but I didn’t say this because my mouth had grown impossibly dry. It’s possible that, in my fear, I was walking more and more slowly, because at some point, Reed yelled, “Run!”
We ran across the wide field and along the edge of the sandy marsh, racing until we were too tired to keep going. When we finally stopped, Reed bent over with his hands on his knees like an athlete on TV. I tried to catch my breath. When I looked around, the farmhouse was gone. Everything looked wild all around us.
“Do you know where we are?” I said. Reed nodded. “Was there an alligator?” I said. “Was it chasing us?”
Reed shook his head. He was taking in deep chestfuls of air. “I just love to run,” he said. He pointed at some trees ahead of us. I could see the pond shimmering through the branches. “They’re up there,” he said.
The air in my lungs grew cooler. My father had a theory about “thinning out the herd,” which meant that weak and stupid people eliminated themselves by making bad choices. He said God had no mercy for fools, and I wondered if I was being foolish now. But I followed Reed into the woods. I wanted to know. I wanted to see what the alligator looked like.
The pond’s surface looked like broken glass because of the breeze and reflected sun. I scanned the water carefully, but it was hard to know what to look for. Reed pointed at something dark floating directly across from us, against the far shore. My chest filled with fear and I touched his arm.
“That’s him,” I said.
He shook his head. “That’s a log,” he said. “But that’s what he’ll look like.”
After a few minutes, I started to relax. “I don’t see him,” I said.
“Nope,” said Reed.
“I think he’s gone.”
Reed looked at me. “He’s not here,” he said, “but he is somewhere.”
days left: 10 . . . money you got: $0 . . . money you need: $350
The slip is gonna come in the mail like it do every month, with the Lysol and the save-the-children envelope lookin regular as hell. It’s gonna have your name, Michelle A. Sutton, on it. And it’s gonna say balance. And it’s gonna say when the balance due: first of the month. They hiked your rent up one hunnit dollars. They said they was gonna do it and they didn’t lie.
Read the slip to yourself.
Scream, Shit, then stub your toe on the kitchen table.
The old man in 14C gonna hit the wall.
Hit the wall back.
In the spring of 1825, a month after moving into a room in Cambridge and registering for Harvard Divinity School, Ralph Waldo Emerson began to lose his sight. He was not blind, but his vision was impaired enough that reading and study were impossible. It seems likely that Emerson’s condition was diagnosed as rheumatic inflammation, and that the root cause was tuberculosis—the disease that had afflicted his father, killed two of his brothers, took his wife, and ended the life of his protégé, Henry David Thoreau. Nearly one third of all deaths in Boston, in fact, were from the disease, which was incurable at the time but whose symptoms could be managed. Emerson visited Boston’s leading eye doctor, Dr. Edward Reynolds, who recommended surgery.
Dr. Reynolds had trained in England under James Wardrop, who developed a procedure for relieving inflammation of the eye by puncturing the cornea with a cataract knife or couching needle. The knife was then twisted slightly, to keep the cornea from closing, and allowing the aqueous humor that had built up to drain through the small hole. It was a simple procedure, relatively safe and painless, though it was designed to bring only temporary relief and to be repeated as necessary. Emerson underwent the procedure twice, once that spring and once in the fall.
Twenty-five years ago, when my family moved to Waterville, Maine, we bought a house with a finished basement that was sectioned off into a laundry room and a rec room. The latter seemed like the best place for my office, so I soon interred myself there, setting up my desk and computer and half a dozen bookcases below ground in a windowless room, where it would be quiet and I wouldn’t be underfoot (though I was, of course, literally under the feet of my wife and daughters). I worked in that basement for four years, writing most of my novel Straight Man there, before finally putting in a request to come above ground. The problem was that no one in our family besides me remembered to shut the laundry- room door when the dryer was going, and after a couple loads of towels, the air down there became thick and dry. “I’m asphyxiating,” I complained. “I can feel my lungs filling up with lint.”
As you may know, requests for exhumation are seldom granted. In all the houses we’d ever lived in during my long academic nomadship, I’d always been relegated to the basement, and this was where my then-teenaged daughters had come to believe their father belonged. My wife wasn’t thrilled, either. If I were allowed up into the light of day, I might see other things I wanted, and where would it all end? But a movie of my novel Nobody’s Fool was about to start shooting, and at long last my books were making some money, which meant that for the first time I actually had some juice in the family. Whatever the reason, I unexpectedly prevailed and was allowed to move upstairs into a room whose window looked out onto our backyard, near the center of which stood a gnarled apple tree that bore and then dropped hundreds of hard, green, worm-infested apples each August. This bitter harvest shouldn’t have surprised us. Resting against the base of the tree was a gravestone.
If I was visited by a ghost in the night and changed
my mind— Executive
functioning in highest
order. The ghost comes, sits, says, in what tongue, in language I can understand. She says I’m sick of poems. Verse for the living. She knows
I only speak to ghosts now, only ghosts talk to me, when I speak to myself it is in ghost
In the dark of night
I left my home (I live
alone). Up at 4 to catch Delta 6
through the dark
brights on. Parking Level P3
Column 44, hot radiation
pagoda, one may elect
instead to use a female. “Use of This Technology
Is Optional.” I opt
for human hands, opt
to use yr woman hours, gentle female
expertise, and nonthreatening. Nothing
to see here, move along, fellow
pat me down, light swift touch, blue latex
fingers: I will feel around your
waistband now with the backs
of my hands. These are the backs
of my hands you are feeling now at the join
of groin and thigh, light
touch. Now you’re going to feel me
at your breast: that’s the back
of my hands. I am a little high
In the summer of 1995, I was asked to read a passage from Stanley Elkin’s work at a memorial service for him, to be held during the Sewanee Writers Conference, at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. Stanley had died that past May.
I was honored to have been asked because I was a huge fan of Stanley’s fiction, and because he had been a dear friend.
In fact I was such an ardent fan that it often struck me as astonishing and highly unlikely that we had become friends. To me, spending time with Stanley seemed like the equivalent of being invited to hang out with the Dalai Lama on a beautiful porch—on a succession of beautiful porches—at the various writers conferences (first Breadloaf, then Sewanee) at which Stanley and I taught. Actually, it seemed better than hanging out with the Dalai Lama; Stanley was funnier, louder, told dirtier jokes, and had a bigger personality. Certainly Stanley was a more eloquent complainer than I imagined the Dalai Lama being, even (or especially) at the spiritual leader’s lowest moments. There was something about crankiness, Stanley’s own crankiness and the crankiness of others—the performative aspect of crankiness, let’s say—that delighted him. I always felt he liked me best when I was most irritated, or irritable, and when I was able to transform that irritability (as he did so well) into humor.
For more than a decade before his death, Stanley and I had spent weeks in the summer on those porches, most often with our families, with my husband Howie and Stanley’s wife Joan, and sometimes with our children, for whom those conferences provided an excuse to enact their version of some Lost Boys or (worst-case) Lord of the Flies scenarios, running wild across the scenic campuses with the other writers’ kids. Stanley and Joan’s daughter Molly, older than my own kids, was already great fun to talk to, as she has remained.
When we weren’t sitting on the porches, we were eating (mostly awful) Conference food, attending readings, giving readings, teaching classes, reading student manuscripts and having manuscript conferences. Those last three elements of our job description were the main focus of Stanley’s complaints, which would rise to a pitch of annoyance, of grievance, of righteous fury—and then subside. And then he would go off to meet his lucky, grateful, and understandably anxious students. Stanley was known to be a fierce critic of student work; to say that he didn’t suffer fools gladly doesn’t begin to describe the intensity of his disapproval, of his response to anything he found careless, false, or second-rate.
As I’ve said, I was honored to have been asked by the conference director and poet Wyatt Prunty to speak at Stanley’s memorial. But I was also nervous about it, for several reasons.
One of those reasons was that, unlike many writers, Stanley was a terrific reader of his own work. He managed to get it all across: the cadence, the force and sheer exuberance of his language; the nervy plots; his frequently pathetic, repulsive, and profoundly sympathetic characters; the grossness and obscenity, the poetry; the all-too-rare gift for writing “serious” fiction that could make its readers laugh out loud. The off-the-charts energy of his sentences, his ability to reanimate and reconstruct the written word, his talent for using a particular word in a way in which (as far as you knew) it had never been used before, and which made you stop and think until you figured out how and why it was precisely the right word—that no other word would have done.
And his maximalism: the continual testing, testing, to see how much weight a sentence could sustain, how long it could go on without losing its clarity, its logic. In an interview, Stanley said that there were writers who took things out and writers who put things in, and that he was one of the latter. One of the things I remember saying at the memorial service was that I kept several of Stanley’s novels near my desk, and that whenever I felt I’d written a lazy sentence, a cliché, or a sloppy or inexact passage of description, I’d open one of Stanley’s books at random, and every sentence I read would inspire me to go back to my own writing and work harder. I still have his books near my desk, and his sentences still function, for me, that way.
I’d heard Stanley read many times, and every one of those readings had been a stellar and unforgettable performance. He usually claimed to be reading from a work in progress, but how could something so perfect and polished be in progress? In progress toward what? Each performance outdid the previous one in its brilliance, its poetry, its humor, its honesty, its pure cringe-inducing ballsiness.
I heard him read the early pages of The Magic Kingdom, in which a grieving father named Eddie Bale manages to convince the Queen of England to kick-start his obsessive, well-meaning but ultimately disastrous program to bring dying children to Disneyland; a description of heaven and hell (some of it in the voice of God) from The Living End; the beginning of The Rabbi of Lud, one of the darkest and funniest meditations on Judaism and New Jersey ever written. It’s telling that both Howie and I remember Stanley standing up when he read, though by the time we met him, his multiple sclerosis had advanced to the point at which that would have been unlikely or impossible. He was sitting—it only seemed as if he were standing.
One thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to read, at Stanley’s memorial service, anything I’d heard him read. I didn’t want to hear his voice in my head, reminding me—as he would never have done in life, because, for such a notorious curmudgeon, he was unfailingly polite and kind to me—of what a lousy job I was doing.
Also, because he’d died just a few months before, and because I was still extremely sad about his death, I was afraid I might find it hard to keep my composure throughout the reading. I have strong feelings about speakers at memorial services not compelling the assembled mourners to witness their emotional breakdowns. It always seems somehow . . . unhelpful. I’d spoken at several memorial services in the months leading up to that summer (it was one of those times, when, as sometimes happens, a number of loved ones die in dizzyingly quick succession), and somehow I’d managed to keep it together when I’d been asked to say something.
I found it consoling to recall an evening, several summers before, en route to dinner in Vermont, when we’d passed a lovely rural cemetery, and Stanley had greeted the tombstones—the dead—with a hearty, expansive wave. “See you soon, guys!” he’d called out.
Stanley loved to be right.
So the question was: what to read?
I am a body schooling,
a ball of fish, flashing
and many, in these early days
of feeling, of love.
When I learned,
hours ago, of fish songs
that swell like birdsong
in the morning,
how they foghorn or buzz
for food, or mates
or space, I thought,
now aren’t I a humming thing?
Yes, you say,
a body of oceans
And the sea anemone in me,
growing on the wreckage
of an old ship—
can they grow that way,
I wonder, on an ending—
My chest is earth
I meant to write my chest is warm
but earth will do
to exhume a heart
I meant to write
Did you know I was alive the whole time
I was alive in the ground but torpor
In late May my sister calls. Her son Maurice is being sentenced in Kansas City on June twenty-third. The charge is armed robbery. She needs to go, but does not want to go alone.
I stand in my kitchen, waiting for water to boil so I can make green tea. It’s a beautiful late-spring afternoon, and I like my kitchen on such days: it’s sunny and comfortable and warm. Also old, which does not bother me. The tile dates from the previous owner, who had a love affair with dusty pink. The picture window no longer opens, the cabinets are dark and unappealing, and the floor is actual linoleum. Through the open side window comes the sound of buzzing saws. A neighbor is renovating her kitchen for the second time since I have lived in this leafy little suburb; somebody died and left her a wad of cash. Across the way another neighbor is refinishing his attic, and on the next block up a dumpster sits in a driveway, collecting construction mess. In towns like this there’s a constant churn of improvements, additions, refurbishments. On the outside my house looks the same as the others. Inside the best I can do is patch whatever breaks.
The hockey parent has an internal clock. The countdown kicks in when you get to the rink, an hour before puck drop. Another winter morning: the boys, in matching sweats, performed their warmups in the parking lot, while their coach, a heavyset Czech, presided with a baleful glare that even the kids knew was only half-serious. Jog, sprint, squats, hops, jumping jacks, malaprops, taunts. He’d once written on a whiteboard, after a game, “You are suck.”
When they were done, they jogged past us through the lobby of the rink and jostled into their locker room. They were awake now, in a way we’d never be, though we’d been mainlining caffeine since dawn. While the boys dressed and chattered, and then sank into a depressive kind of stillness for the Czech’s pregame speech, we watched the Zamboni cut the ice, refilled our coffee cups, or retreated to a bathroom stall with a tabloid in hand. One of us arranged the boys’ sticks along the wall, outside the locker room. Another had turned over his car keys to a rink attendant as collateral for the team’s key to the room. But we were no longer permitted in the room, now that the boys were eleven. We were support staff. A paunchy entourage in bad jeans. Soon the referees stepped onto the ice to glide out a few lonely laps. And so we took up our positions along the glass.
This was somewhere in New Jersey. Wayne, maybe. Or Secaucus. Or Brick. The critical ones among us stood together. Negative commentary required like-minded observers. It can be fraught to disparage other people’s children in their earshot. We were the Platonists, yearning for the Form of the Good—quick tempos, crisp passes, hard accurate shots, the instinctive carving up of the ice surface into open spaces and hidden seams. Displays of strength, cunning, and character. The elevation of our sons and ourselves.
It’s hard to understand, if you’re a sensible person, or even an insensible person who happens not to have children, just how much hope builds up in the minutes before your offspring participates in a sporting contest. We know that the arc of athletics bends toward disappointment, that we must learn to accept and even forgive our sons’ flubs and deficiencies of effort, that we are at best projecting our own dashed aspirations onto them, or else merely raging at them out of frustration at the intractability of the world. We also know that the kids can’t hear us on the ice, and that even if they could, they would much prefer not to. But once the puck drops, such knowledge gives way to the ache of thwarted expectations, the pangs of our own powerlessness. As they disappoint us, we disappoint ourselves. And so we yell.
The summer that Megan Moore discovered Gabriel García Márquez she ran six hundred and thirty miles in ten weeks, her father left and shacked up with the ex-Playboy bunny, her mother moved the race-car driver into the bonus suite, her sister Courtney toked up daily in the tree house out back, their little brother John Paul swiped underthings from their rooms, and the city of Dallas recorded seventy-three straight days of one hundred-plus degrees. Megan had ridden her bike over to Books-A-Plenty because the harsh light of afternoon was flaying her nerves, and to be in that house, with those people, made her want to cut off all her hair and flush it down the toilet. Seventeen dollars of birthday money remained to her, and she roamed the aisles of books like a famished feral cat. Until now, her reading had been haphazard, promiscuous. She read whatever came to hand—her mother’s Danielle Steele throbbers, Courtney’s untouched novels from senior English, her father’s Forbes magazines and business-titan biographies. In the pre-internet year of 1990, smart, restless girls with bibliophile tendencies went to the library, or, on really bad days when spending money held out the only hope of relief, haunted their local bookstores.
A cover caught Megan’s eye on the fiction shelves, an enormous, blatantly labial purple flower on which a dark-haired nude reclined with her head thrown back, eyes closed in a showy orgasmic swoon. Love in the Time of Cholera. She inhaled the first forty pages standing right there, shifting from foot to foot and itching with exasperation. It was almost too much, the jangly stimulus of headlong sentences like a minor key symphony that never resolves, or a hot needle poked in your belly button. She read all the way to Dr. Urbino’s dying words—Only God knows how much I loved you—and snapped the book shut. Her chest slowly filled with air. Had she even taken a breath these past thirty minutes? She wanted to scream, or flail about like a girl possessed, or collapse into a deep, dreamless sleep that might last for days.
The bikini isn’t even Claire’s thing. Before this winter, if you had said Confederate flag, Claire would have thought of high-school beach trips: rows and rows of tacky souvenir shops along the Ocean City Boardwalk, her best friend Angela muttering they know they lost, right? while Claire tried to remember which side of the Mason-Dixon line Maryland was on. The flag stuff is Jackson’s, and she’s mostly seeing Jackson to piss off Puppy. Puppy, Claire’s almost-stepmother, is legally named Poppy; Puppy is supposedly a childhood nickname stemming from a baby sister’s mispronunciation, but Claire suspects that Puppy has made the whole thing up. Puppy deemed it wasteful to pay twice as much for a direct flight in order for Claire to avoid a layover, and her father listens to Puppy now, so for the first half of her trip, Claire had to go the wrong direction—to Florida from Vermont via Detroit.
Jackson has a drawl and a pickup truck and, in spite of his lack of farming experience, a farmer’s tan. Claire meets him at Burger Boy, the restaurant a few miles from her father’s house. Its chipping red-and-white tiles and musk of grease give it all the glamour of a truck-stop bathroom, but it’s a respite from the lemon-scented and pristine house that brought her father to St. Petersburg for retirement. At college, Claire mostly lives off of the salad bar, but here she picks up a burger and fries to go every afternoon. It is the kind of food Puppy says she can’t eat since she turned thirty, and Puppy, having no job and, from what Claire gathers, limited ambitions beyond strolling the house in expensive loungewear, is always home to miserably watch her eat it. On her fourth Burger Boy visit, Claire picks up Jackson too. They get high and make out in the pool house that afternoon, and the next and the next and the next.
At nineteen, Jackson is six months older than Claire, but still a senior in high school. They try hanging out at his house once, but Claire feels shamed by his mother’s scrutiny, assumes she wants to know what’s damaged or defective about Claire that has her screwing a high-school boy. After that, when they cannot be alone at her house because her father is home (rarely) or Puppy is unbearable (frequently), they find places to park. He gives her the bikini at the end of the first week, after she complains that her father’s move to Florida caught her off guard—she is used to winters that at least make an effort to be winter, but her father’s new life in St. Pete is relentless sunshine, sunburn weather in December. Outside, by the pool, she has resigned herself to wearing t-shirts over one of Puppy’s old suits, which is spangled with faded glitter and sags over Claire’s bee-sting breasts. Jackson presents the bathing suit wadded up in a supermarket plastic bag, the sort of awkward non-gift you give someone in an awkward non-relationship—he bought it for five dollars on a spring break trip, he says, for a girlfriend he subsequently found blowing one of his friends in their shared motel room and broke up with.
It isn’t much—three triangles and some string—but the tag is still attached and Jackson is beaming at her.
“You’d look so hot in this,” he says.
She does look pretty hot: like someone she is not, what with the stars and bars marking her tits and crotch, but a hot someone she is not.
“You look like white trash,” Puppy says to her the first time she sees the bikini.
“You would know,” Claire says back. The bathing suit becomes a habit, even after the temperature dips. Two days before she leaves town, she throws a pair of cutoffs and a T-shirt over it before she and Jackson leave the house, but when they get to the parking space—a clearing in a half-built, abandoned subdivision—she makes a show of stripping off the shorts and shirt. In the few minutes before he takes it off and fucks her in the truck’s cab, Jackson snaps a picture of Claire, radiant and smiling and leaning against the crisp foil-flash of the bumper, the bikini’s Xs making her body a tic-tac-toe board.
She’s already forgotten about the picture when Jackson posts it on Facebook that night, tagged with her name and #mygirl. Claire doesn’t have the heart to object. On her last night in town she doesn’t even see Jackson—her father takes her out for a fancy dinner along the waterfront, just her, and then it’s goodbye. At the gate awaiting her connecting flight, Claire drapes herself over two airport chairs and checks the messages on her phone. She has eighteen new texts, most from casual acquaintances, the closest thing she has to friends at Dennis College. The messages range from hostile to bewildered, and it takes her a few minutes to decipher what has prompted them: a tweet from the account of the black girl who lives across the hall from her, which features the photo of Claire in the bikini and the commentary My hallmate just posted this picture of herself on vacation :/ .
Claire squints at the thumbnail photo of the tweet’s author, the only black girl on their dorm’s floor, and vaguely remembers her. In the frenzied first weeks at Dennis, full of getting-to-know-you games and welcomes, Claire accepted the girl’s friend request, but she wasn’t really aware that hallmate was a thing, a relationship carrying some expectation of trust or camaraderie. She is strangely embarrassed by the picture, the way it turns her into someone else. She wasn’t wearing the bikini to bother black people—for Christ’s sake, there were none in her father’s new neighborhood to bother even if she wanted to—but to bother Puppy, who is half racist anyway, which makes her aggrieved reaction doubly hilarious. Claire turns her phone off again, closes her eyes, and thinks to the mental picture of the girl whose name she cannot remember, if she has ever known it, well fuck you too.
In their old Virginia neighborhood, in the old house, the one Claire’s father sold the second she graduated, they have black neighbors. The Halls move into Claire’s subdivision the summer before she starts first grade, back when the neighborhood is still brand new: tech money is paving western Fairfax on its way out to Reston, which will be malls and mini-mansions and glossy buildings soon. Claire’s mother prefers the idea of a sprawling country house a little further out, but her father likes the idea of something you can build from the ground up, tinkering with room sizes and flooring types, and so her father gets his house and her mother gets to choose from seven different shades of granite for the counters and eight different types of wood for the floors, and everything is so new and shiny when they move in that Claire is afraid of her own house, afraid her presence will somehow dent or tarnish it.
Though Claire has always lived in Virginia, and Virginia, she knows, is technically the South, Angela is the first person Claire remembers meeting whose voice lilts: the Halls moved from South Carolina, and the whole family talks with drowsy vowels and an occasional drag that gives some words—her name, for example—a comforting dip in the middle. In Mrs. Hall’s mouth, Claire’s name is a tunnel from which a person can emerge on the other side. Claire is fascinated by their accents, and, yes, by the dark tint of their skin, but mostly she is anxious to be seen. In her own house, Claire is alone: her only sibling is a half brother, Sean, ten years older, from her father’s first marriage. Her father keeps long hours, and her mother has a certain formality; Claire loves her, but feels, in her presence, like a miniature adult, embarrassed by the silliness of her six-year-old desires.
Mrs. Hall is an elementary school teacher and has a high tolerance for the frenetic energy of children’s games. Angela’s house also has Aaron, her brother, who is only a year older than the two of them. Claire’s mother refers to Angela and Aaron as Irish twins, which confuses Claire because they are neither twins nor Irish, so she adopts Mrs. Hall’s term: stairstep siblings, one right behind the other. At that age, they are the same size, Angela tall for her age and Aaron short for his. Aaron is skinny and quiet and wears glasses that dwarf his face; Angela is a whirlwind.
Since Claire has no brother at home to torment, she and Angela torment Aaron together, chasing him around the front lawn, menacing him with handfuls of glitter and other arts and crafts detritus, taking his shoes from the row by the front door and hiding them in cupboards, in the garage, in the laundry. Claire, not yet entirely clear on the rules of family, thinks of herself as having not a half brother, but half-a-brother, and shortly after meeting the Halls she thinks of herself as having half of Angela’s too. The first summer, Angela teaches her that silly hand game, which starts my mother your mother live across the street. Though this isn’t technically true of them, it’s close enough, so they swear it is about them, and torment Aaron with its refrain—girls are dandy just like candy, boys are rotten just like cotton, girls go to college to get more knowledge, boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider. In most aspects Aaron is indifferent to their teasing, but the Jupiter taunt seems to bother him for its failures of logic. Boys, he insists, would have to be smart to go to Jupiter, and would probably go to college first. The argument has merits that Claire and Angela ignore in favor of papering the door of his room with pictures of Jupiter: crayon-drawn, ripped out of magazines, snipped out of her parents’ dusty encyclopedia set and once out of a children’s book about the solar system, stolen from her pediatrician’s office. How is the weather on Jupiter, they ask him, though he never answers. Even now Claire recognizes renderings of the planet on sight, cloud-spotted, big and bright and banded, unspectacular until you consider all it holds in orbit.
The girl across the hall doesn’t look like Angela at all. She is lighter-skinned and heavier-framed and her hair is wilder, deliberately unkempt in a way that would have made Angela’s mother raise an eyebrow. Her name, Claire eventually remembers, is Carmen. By the time Claire arrives at her dorm room, on the second floor of a row of flat brick buildings that house a third of the small college’s freshmen, there are forty-seven responses to and twenty-three retweets of Carmen’s post. Claire is surprised by the level of interest, then annoyed by it. She distrusts collective anger; Claire’s anger has always been her own. Claire prints a photo of the Confederate flag and scrawls in loopy cursive on the back Welcome back! I hope you had a great vacation. When she slips the photo under her door, she means to tell Carmen-the-hallmate to fuck off.
The next morning, the voicemail on her phone is full. She has 354 new emails, most of them from strangers. Across the hall, campus movers are noisily carting Carmen off to a new dorm. A reporter from the student paper, unable to reach her by phone, has slipped a note under Claire’s door asking for an interview. She gathers from his note that several bloggers have now picked up both the bikini photo and Carmen’s photo of last night’s postcard. She has a text from Jackson. The hashtag #badbikiniideas turns up one hundred thirty-seven results, including one with a picture of swastikas photoshopped into palm trees. An email marked urgent informs her that her academic counselor would like to speak to her. In a separate urgent email, the Office of Diversity requests her presence. Someone using the email email@example.com thinks she is a cunt. Twenty-two different rednecks from around the country have sent her supportive pictures of their penises.
It seems clear to Claire that most of the hall has taken Carmen’s side. Claire forgoes both showering and breakfast, opting instead to burrow in her room. Someone from the campus TV station has interviewed Carmen and put the clip online. In the video, Carmen stands in front of Bell Hall, one of the upperclassmen dorms, where she has apparently been relocated. She wears a Dennis College sweatshirt and wraps her arms around herself. “Up until this happened, I thought she was nice,” Carmen says. “We always smiled at each other in the hallway. But she put a hate symbol where I sleep, and she thought it was funny.” There is genuine fear in her eyes, which startles Claire.
Sean has left an angry voicemail asking her what she was thinking. Claire does not call him back. Jackson texts again to tell her he knows she’s busy but he thinks she’s awesome. Claire turns her phone off and shuts her inbox tab and spends the afternoon watching online videos of singing goats. She is on her tenth goat video when the president of the campus libertarians shows up at her door and introduces himself. His name is Robert and he lives two floors down, where he is the RA. He smiles like someone who has just won second place.
“I’m here in support of your right to free expression,” he says.
“Don’t take this personally,” Claire says, “but unless you’re here in support of my right to go to bed early, I don’t care. I don’t care about any of this. It was just a stupid picture.”
“And you shouldn’t be punished for it, but you will be if you don’t get ahead of this. My friend lives on your hall and hadn’t seen you all day, so we figured you were hiding out. We made you a care package.”
The care package consists of a foil-wrapped caramel apple from the dining hall, which has declared it carnival week at the dessert buffet, and a book on libertarian philosophy, in case she’s bored. Claire considers the offering. She is unimpressed, but also hungry, so she lets him in before his presence in her doorway becomes a spectacle.
“For the record,” he says, “I’m not a big fan of the Confederate flag myself. The Confederacy was an all-around failure of military strategy. Lost the battle when they lost the ports, if you ask me. But I’m no one to judge anyone for their support of lost causes. As far as I’m concerned, you can wear anything you want.”
Claire gathers that she is supposed to find this endearing, that she is supposed to bite the apple and lick the caramel off of her lips and ask him to tell her more about military strategy and let him plan her own response campaign, and that sometime several hours into this discussion she is supposed to end up naked out of awe or gratitude. Instead she sets the book and the apple on her desk, politely thanks him, tells him she is tired and, when he finally leaves, locks the door behind him. She eats the apple alone in bed, figuring it can cover her meals for today and maybe tomorrow—she’s still got some Burger Boy calories stored up.
When she checks her mail again before bed, there are another hundred emails. Her student account’s address has been posted on several message boards and #clairewilliamsvacationideas is a locally trending topic (Auschwitz, My Lai, Wounded Knee). She is losing on Twitter, but a group called Heritage Defenders has picked up the story and distributed it to their members, so at this point she has more supporters than detractors in her inbox. Cliff from Tennessee writes that when he was in college, his fraternity hosted an annual plantation ball for their sister sorority and everyone dressed in their frilly historical finest. One year he and his frat brother decided to cover the house’s front lawn in thousands of cotton balls, so that when they posed for pictures on its steps, the college’s mostly black janitorial staff could be seen in the background of the shot, cleaning up. PC police tried to shut down our chapter for it, but we stayed strong. Hang in there! the email concludes. There is an attachment: a picture of a boy, smiling wide in khaki pants with a button-down and vest, his arm around a laughing redhead in a corset and frilly hoop skirt, cotton balls blanketing the ground beneath them, a stooped black man in a green uniform sweeping up cotton in the background. He has a broom and a plastic trash can on wheels and his uniform is crisp and synthetic-shiny—there’s nothing historically authentic about his presence, other than his blackness. She cannot see the man’s face, but she can imagine it, and the imagining comes with a twinge of shame. But she is not Cliff, Claire reminds herself; Cliff thinking they are the same doesn’t make them the same. The next email is angry and anonymous; its writer threatens to find out where she lives and set her on fire. Claire decides she will tell anyone looking where to find her. She prints out a copy of the flag and tapes it to her dorm window. She calls the reporter from the student paper back and tells him she is simply celebrating her heritage, like any number of groups on campus encourage students to do. She affects a lilt to say so, but as soon as the words are out of her mouth she realizes that the affect is a mistake. She doesn’t sound like herself. She sounds like Angela.
The first time was kissing Sabrina across the street from the house where I grew up. We were standing on the sidewalk, and I’m almost certain that my twin brother was standing there as well and so was a friend of Sabrina’s who had just kissed him, I can’t remember her name. There were plum trees and most of the plums were rotten on the ground. You could smell the plums turning over inside themselves. Dogs barking. My Superman curtains looked out from my bedroom window across the street and didn’t say a word.
Nine or ten years old, we made our nervous way a short distance into each other’s bodies and every word I ever used to describe anything fell apart inside my mouth and around her tongue.
How did we know to use our tongues?
Small birds know as much.
They reach out for their mamas with their tongues going cheep cheep cheep. In and out, flick flick flick, cheep cheep cheep. Sabrina and I stopped speaking English. I lay down beneath her pink palate and fell asleep in a dream of — what was that — cherry gloss, Jolly Ranchers, and Aqua Net?
For breakfast I have filled
a pan with coconut oil &
trembling petunias, that tobacco
cousin that I now season w/ the underside
of nothing. The scent of night?
Gone. You can’t mix petunias
w/ petunias. It’s daytime now,
birdsong clanging at the window
& the ocean tripping over itself
like a lime-green staircase.
I’m handing you a word, it’s
“circumference,” & you catch
my drift immediately. Circumference
hula-looping your lips. The private
garden of your sternum bare.
When he first arrived in Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1888, Professor William Peterfield Trent saw an opportunity to shape the intellectual destiny of the South. Just thirty years old, he had recently finished his historical training at Johns Hopkins and accepted a job at the University of the South over a higher-paid position at the University of Georgia. Sewanee, Trent hoped, would provide the foundation to invigorate the region’s literary and intellectual culture. Over the next few years, Trent did just that, compiling a wide network of friends and producing some of his most lasting work. In 1892 his biography of southern author William Gilmore Simms was published, and in the same year he produced the first issue of the Sewanee Review.